BOTANISTS are agreed that the tree peony did not grow wild in Japan
but that Buddhist monks had taken it from China and Korea to Japan in
the sixth, seventh and eighth centuries along with such fruits as the
apple, pear, plum, peach, apricot, cherry, quince, and orange, and
such ornamental plants as the Yulan magnolia and the Sophora (17).
The few students who think that the Moutan peony was indigenous
to Japan, as well as to the Asiatic continent, admit that all the
improved kinds came from China.
name Moutan, that came with the plant, was corrupted to Bhotan or
Botan which is still the Japanese name for peony. The tree peony
enjoyed great esteem as early as 724 A.D. Later authors discoursed on
its medicinal value and described its colors. Some estimated that
there were from five hundred to a thousand distinct
In Nara and in Yamata there was a variety called "Thousand
Petals," and there were stories of plants selling for a hundred
ounces of silver, and of a black peony, 'Kurobotan' (18). Wilson
believed many of these stories were copied from older Chinese stories
such as have been mentioned before. (There is, however, a modern
Japanese deep crimson-purple variety named 'Kuro-botan.')
first Europeans to see tree peonies in Japan were KaempferflPJ, about
1690, and Thunberg(20,), in 1775, but they mention them only briefly.
Apparently no plants were sent to Europe either by them or by later
travelers until about 1844, perhaps because they thought the
varieties they saw identical with plants sent to Europe from China.
first known importation of tree peonies from Japan was by Siebold
'Kintajio' (Castle of Kinuta). Flowers are pale pink
in 1844. It was said to come from the Imperial Gardens of Tokyo
and Kyoto and to contain forty-two of the finest varieties. They
began to bloom in Holland in the Siebold Nursery and in the garden of
Prince Frederic in 1848. They were entirely different from Fortune's
Chinese varieties and the descriptions sound as if they covered all
the types since offered in Japan. Nothing is known of their
subsequent history except that the Dutch nurseryman, Krelage,
cataloged a few from Siebold in 1867 at from one to twelve dollars
each, but only two or three varieties seem to have survived and to
have later been offered by other nurserymen. L. Boehmer, a German
nurseryman in Yokohama, exported plants in 1866, but they also did
not long survive. There were practically no Japanese tree peonies to
be had in Europe or America until they began to come from the
Japanese nurseries in the 1890's.
1891, Professor Sargent visited Japan and brought back a collection
of a dozen or more Japanese varieties. Very soon after that several
Japanese dealers (not actual nurserymen), the most prominent of which
were the Yokohama Nursery Company, and the Tokyo Nursery Company,
printed catalogs in English and perhaps in German and French. Kelway
in England, Goos & Koenemann in Germany, and Paillet, Lemoine,
and Dessert in France, offered plants for sale under elaborate
English, German and French names. Of the lot, Auguste Dessert was the
only one to attempt to give the original Japanese name, but that did
little good as less than half of the plants he imported, like those
received by others from Japan, proved true to name or description.
Dessert, however, was the person most responsible
bringing about the new popularity of the tree peony for he continued
to specialize in tree peonies longer than the others and his catalogs
are our best information of the first quarter of this century.
about 1918, wrote of tree peonies in Korea, where he said the plants
needed some winter protection. Shortly after that E. H. Wilson told
one of the present authors that the tree peonies in Korea were the
finest he had ever seen anywhere.
writing about the floral art of Japan, stated that the tree peony
was delicate and needed great care. He said the Japanese called it
"the flower of twenty days" because it stayed in bloom that
long. It is not clear if he meant that one bloom would last that
long, which might be possible during very cool weather. Another
writer(24), in telling how the culture of tree peonies in
Japan amounted to a regular worship, described how each individual
plant was fed and watered and given light and shade by the use of an
individual straw thatch covering. Under such care, flowers could be
kept in good condition longer than if grown in the open.
may have meant that all varieties together gave an extended flowering
period totaling nearly three weeks, which in cool weather might
easily happen. He quotes the poet Tung Po as saying, "The floral
mon-archs should be visited in the morning. He who should see their
splendor in the afternoon cannot be considered a good judge,"
which would seem to indicate that even under Japanese conditions the
flower faded rapidly.
Dunbar, a famous park superintendent of Rochester, New York, imported
tree peonies from Japan about 1900. They made a sensation
they bloomed. The plants, like all early Japanese importations, were
grafted on Moutan stocks, and, like all such plants, were short
lived. Dunbar had saved seeds, however, from his first flowers and so
was able to continue the strain if not the original clones. J.
Wilkinson Elliot, in Pittsburgh, between 1905 or 1910 and 1915, and
Bertrand H. Farr, in Wyomissing, Pennsylvania, between 1910 and 1920,
imported from Japan and propagated plants. Thomas J. Oberlin of
Sinking Spring, Pennsylvania, near Wyomissing, imported plants from
Japan, the first apparently in the 1890's, and began to propagate on
what was then a large scale. In the 1930's and 1940's, his son, R. L.
Oberlin, had a stock of approximately seven thousand plants and w'as
grafting about a thousand a year.
the 1920's, the Yokohama Nursery was still sending to this country a
beautiful book of color illustrations of fifty named varieties and
offering these varieties for sale. Various persons importing these
received good plants, the flowers of which hardly ever corresponded
to the illustrations. On one occasion, one of the present authors
wrote to the nursery asking if it might be possible, by paying extra,
to get an authentic set corresponding to the illustrations, this set
to be used to establish the correct names of the plants in this
country. He received an indignant reply from an American living in
Tapan who was at that time the president or general manager of the
company. The letter stated that no business was desired from and that
no plants would be sent to anyone who didn't like the company's
method of doing business, or their method of labeling!
this time, catalogs reached
country from Chugai Shokubutsu Yen, a nursery growing all, or at
least a good part of the tree peonies they offered, in contrast to
the earlier so-called nurseries which merely bought plants from small
growers and resold them. These catalogs gave good descriptions of two
hundred or so varieties, dividing them into "Choice,"
"Selected," "New and Rare," "Newest,"
and "Miscellaneous" varieties, and for good measure added
"Winter Flowering Varieties." Of the last named varieties,
they carefully explained they did not mean that they flowered in
winter! To them the term meant that in their climate the plants would
produce some flowers in the autumn until stopped by cold weather.
They also explained that by crimson they often meant to convey the
color that Americans called light pink, or that they meant a white
flower with blotches of deep red. They were at least honest in
calling to the attention of prospective customers what the English
terms they used meant to them.
Chugai varieties imported jn the 1920's and early 1930's proved to be
the handsomest to reach this country. Not only that, they were true
to descriptions, and re-orders brought the same variety under the
same name. It is from these varieties that we had for the first time
an opportunity to know what we meant when we mentioned 'Akashi-gata,'
'Dokushin-den,' 'Iro-no-seki,' or other named variety. It is
unfortunate for us that the Chugai Nursery went out of business
either shortly before or during World War II.
The Japanese seed and bulb firms of T. Sakata &
Company, and of Henry & Lee, on several occasions and as a favor,
collected from Japanese growers other fine varieties and sent them to
this country. These also proved true
before the late war, beautifully illustrated catalogs from K. Wada,
of Numaza-shi, reached this country. Many of the names of the
varieties were new, but whether the varieties were really different
is not known, nor do we have record of how many plants actually
reached this country before the war. Several nurseries and amateurs
in the Puget Sound area brought in plants, but many of them
apparently did not long survive. These catalogs, by the way, offered
yellow varieties under Japanese names, but Mr. Wada sent information
that these were French varieties renamed. Wada is still in business
and has been sending plants to this country in the past few years.
Japanese ideal of a flower was very different from that of the
Chinese, and from the same original stock they produced mostly single
or semi-double flowers. Their few full doubles are not so heavy as
the Chinese flowers and are held reasonably upright rather than
drooping and falling under the foliage. They seed freely, which the
Chinese do not. Most propagators have found them more difficult to
propagate than the Chinese. Many of the varieties are not so strong
growing as the Chinese sorts.
American Peony Society Bulletin of September, 1944, published
a list of all Japanese varieties then known. No one knows the
originators or introducers of these varieties. Many of them have been
grown in out-of-the-way parts of Japan for generations, if not for
centuries. Often their names are not names at all but merely words
meaning "white peony," "dark peony," or "very
fine." The difficulties of transliteration from the Japanese
word characters have led to many inconsistencies of spelling often in
catalog. There are, for instance, changes of single letters. Often g
and k; j and sh, z and ts, ds, s and dz
seem to be interchangeable; yet no English speaking person can be
perfectly sure they are in any single instance. There are names like
'Homei,' 'Howmai,' Howmei,' which may or may not be variations of one
name. Other examples are 'Hokwan' and 'Oh-kwan.' One Japanese wrote
before the war that "gyoku" was simply "another
pronunciation of 'tama'." How can Americans understand the
ramifications of this language ? We Americans add to the trouble by
hastily and incorrectly copying the labels.
Americans think we should translate the names into English. Who can
do this when 'Ruriban,' the name of one of the finest purple
varieties, may mean Lapis Lazuli Vessel, "or Ultramarine Basin,
or Indigo Purple Tray?
troubles have been multiplied by the carelessness or
unscrupulous-ness of some Japanese nurserymen. The principal
exporters of the 1910-1925 era would sell a collection of fifty
varieties with fifty different labels and all but two or three plants
would prove to be identical. The same firm would send fifty plants of
one special white variety and the flowers would bloom pink, scarlet,
and purple. In dealings with many Japanese nurserymen, we know only
those already mentioned who sent plants true to description and the
same variety under the same name on a re-order.
these reasons combine to cause confusion. Only through the offices of
the American Peonv Society has some order been brought out of that
confusion. It is now possible to buy plants of some of the best
Japanese varieties in this country and get them
to name. For this we can thank the late R. L. Oberlin, the late Prof.
A. P. Saunders, William Gratwick, and many others who worked with the
American Peony Society.
color range of the varieties now available in the American nurseries
specializing in tree peonies is remarkable. Many varieties have not
been tested long enough in different areas to warrant conclusions as
to which are the "best." We cannot give any comprehensive
list of recommendations. It is not even practical to show which are
the most popular as is done today with irises, hemerocallis, and
other plants which can be propagated and widely distributed in a
relatively short time.
seems better, therefore, to merely quote examples of good varieties
without pretending they are necessarily better than others which are
not mentioned. This will serve at least to call attention to the
great color range.
white, (Class I, of the American Peony Society), there are
'Gessekai,' 'Godaishu,' 'Fuji-oe-ryo,' 'Renkaku,' and 'Yaso-okina,'
which are pure white throughout, 'Ima-chowkow,' which is creamy, and
'Kogane-zome' and 'Shuchiuka,' with pinkish and purplish splashes.
pinks, (Class II), there are the pale 'Dokushin-den' and
'Shishin-den,' and the deeper 'Iro-no-seki,' 'Doun,' and
rose-red to vermilion, (Class III), there are 'Mikasa-yama,'
'Akashi-gata,' and 'Ukara-jishi.'
scarlet, (Class IV), 'Hatsu-hinode,' 'Hiodoshi,'
'Nishiki-no-shi-tone,' and 'Ouchinime.'
crimson to maroon, (Qass V), 'Koi-kagura,' 'Kasane-jishi,' and
'Kon-ron-koku,' 'Hatsu-garashu,' 'Suma-no-ichi,' and 'Kokko.'
purple, (Class VI), 'Rimpo' and 'Ruriban.'
magenta, (Class VII), 'Shiko-den,' 'Bclaireur,' (very early), and the
common Japanese grafting stock sold under the name Moutan.
lilac-rose and pale-rose purple, (Class VIII), 'Jitsu-getsu-ko,'
'Hana-no-mikado,' 'Nippon-zakura,' and 'Jiri-ju-den.'